Who was Sally Hansen?
No one knew the answer, not even the brand’s veteran employees. So he decided to find out. With a small team of researchers, he embarked on an in-depth investigation whose twists and turns, Lowenstein jokes, could be fodder for his own “Serial” podcast. After 18 months of digging, the team unearthed Sally’s story: a resilient, independent-minded woman with a unique perspective on beauty that was in many ways ahead of its time.
The “search for Sally” is the stuff of detective fiction. Yet it is also a story of how Lowenstein drew inspiration from themes and values in Sally’s story to drive a forward-looking relaunch of the brand—including a gloriously provocative ad depicting a fictional “Shetopia” inhabited by real, present-day women who embody the self-made spirit of Sally.
Saybrook recently spoke with Jeremy, who now leads marketing for beauty company Milani Cosmetics, to discuss his experience with Sally Hansen—the person and the brand—and the insights he draws from it. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Saybrook: Why did you think it was important to find out who Sally Hansen really was?
Lowenstein: I think marketers are by nature very curious people. When Coty first bought the Sally Hansen brand from Del Labs in 2007, I asked people who had been with the brand for a long time, “Who was Sally Hansen? There’s a woman’s name on the brand. Who is she? Is she a real person? Or is this like a Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima situation?”
They said, “We have a standard boilerplate,” which was “Sally Hansen was a woman married to a chemist. He created Hard as Nails nail hardener and out of that was born Sally Hansen the brand.” I said, “Is it true?” They said, “We don’t know. It’s what we’ve been using.”
I asked our legal department, “Were there documents that talk about the founding of the brand that came with it when we bought it?” They said no. They had the earnings reports from Del Labs, that’s all. Nothing about how Del Labs acquired Sally Hansen.
So, when I took over the brand, I just had this longing to know who she was and whether she was a real person. I was like, “I’m going on my own scavenger hunt.” I brought in two consultants and two private investigative journalists. We called ourselves “Sally’s Angels.”
Saybrook: What were some of the most memorable moments in your journey to find Sally?
Lowenstein: The first clue we got as to whether she was real was from one of the original owners of Del Labs, Marty Revson, brother of [Revlon founder] Charles Revson. He was in his nineties when we spoke with him, very lucid. And we asked him, “Hey, was Sally Hansen a real person?” And he goes, “Absolutely. We bought the brand from her. This is the year.” So that was step one.
We learned what she looked like in a trade journal. There was a picture of a woman named Sally Hansen who was president of a company called House of Hollywood Cosmetics. She was sitting behind a desk. Behind her was a classic Chinese screen and on the desk was a box that also looked like it came from Asia.
The name “House of Hollywood” brought us to California. We learned that Sally Hansen was married to a man named Adolf Hansen. Adolf was not a chemist; he was a plastic surgeon. He did not come up with Hard as Nails nail hardener; she did. And while they were living in Los Angeles, she started House of Hollywood Cosmetics. House of Hollywood had three different brands under it: skincare and haircare, makeup, and nail.
We got in touch with Adolf’s son, whose nickname was Skip. We asked, “Are you related to Sally Hansen the nail polish brand?” He said, “I have no idea.” He just knew her as Sally, his stepmother. But a couple weeks later, he called us back. His father was a pack rat, and all of his boxes were sitting in Skip’s garage, stuff he had never opened before. In there were videos and photos of Sally.
Skip also had in his house the actual screen and the box that were in the picture from the trade journal. That confirmed for us that this was, in fact, her family. (I’m literally getting chills all over again telling you this because I haven’t talked about this in a long time.)
One thing that came out of the boxes in the garage was a piece of stationery that Adolf had written on. The stationery header said “Your Candid Mirror” with the name Sally Finney, which it turned out was her maiden name.
“Your Candid Mirror” was a beauty advice column that Sally wrote for the L.A. Times. We went to the Times archives and pulled all 91 articles that Sally had written. And I sat down and read them all.
Those articles gave me her tone of voice, her reason for being, and her rationale for beauty. She had this theory about living your best life and being able to do it on your own. The House of Hollywood products were all inspired by her philosophy of democratizing beauty and saying, “Why does everything have to be applied by a makeup artist? Why does it have to be expensive? Why can’t you do that yourself without sacrificing quality?”
Sally later went to New York to launch a brand of her own there. That’s where she started Sally Hansen the brand.
What’s interesting is Sally is actually buried in a cemetery in the Hollywood Hills. I went there to her grave, and no one had taken care of it. We literally sat there and cleaned it. It was a very surreal experience to go through all of this and to discover our founder.
Saybrook: Obviously this was a very moving experience for you at a personal level. But how did you go about putting your findings to use for the brand?
Lowenstein: I had to connect it to what was happening in real-time in the brand. The nail category was hyper-competitive at that point because it was post-recession. A lot of brands had been relaunched into nails.
One of my struggles to differentiate our brand was that our logo was very sterile. It was computer-generated; it had no personality behind it. I wanted to breathe some life into the brand. From Sally Hansen’s marriage certificates, we had her signatures. So, I was able to send those to the logo creators. And the Sally Hansen logo you see today is a version of her signature that we adapted.
But it was really her L.A. Times articles that gave me the confidence to go out there with a reason for being and a point of difference. They also helped me understand why we were in hair removal and our other product lines. Her articles showed me that this was all about self-made beauty. All the product lines are things you would normally achieve through a professional service that you can now achieve at home, that are designed for you to use, that are self-empowering.
I wanted to take her tone of voice and this idea of the power of self-made beauty, inspired by her articles, and use it to relaunch the brand. The challenge was how to do that without backtracking. I didn’t want to put up black-and-white imagery of her. The Sally Hansen brand already had a stigma of being your mom’s brand because it’s older.
I wanted to relaunch and contemporize the brand but use the inspiration of Sally Hansen the person to do that. So, we created this campaign called “The Power of Self-Made Beauty” with the world of Shetopia.
Saybrook: How did that ad come about?
Lowenstein: So, this was at the peak of the “Me Too” movement. My inspiration was, “How do you depict a world that was created by and for self-made women?” We wanted to tell stories about women who are breaking boundaries and really embody the essence of Sally Hansen.
We found nine women who were each were doing things that were breaking boundaries. We had a tech CEO. We had a female soccer player in London who was also an attorney. We had a woman whose mission was around closing the wage gap. And we had a gemologist who, in her sixties, became a model.
We wanted to tell their real-life stories, but we placed them in this fictional world of Shetopia that flipped the narrative. What if there was a woman’s face on the $100 bill? We put Sally’s face on there. What if it was actually men who had to fight for equal pay? What if we had the older woman going after the younger guy? It was this world where women are really in charge.
At the same time, I wanted Sally’s story out there as well. I wanted to explain how I was inspired by her and who she was. So, we gave the exclusive story of how we found her to Buzzfeed and Cosmo to break it. We launched it all together: the original story of the founder, the new brand identity, and the world of Shetopia.
Saybrook: So there was earned media coverage about finding Sally, but also a forward-looking campaign that combined subtle tributes to her (like putting her face on the $100 bill) with stories of present-day women who were living the values that you saw in Sally’s story.
Lowenstein: Exactly. That was important to me.
Saybrook: Looking back, how do you assess the effectiveness of the campaign?
Lowenstein: I was very, very proud of that campaign. It was different from anything that was out there. To me, I think it connected the dots: bringing the past into the present and then linking it to the future.
I do think there were some nerves around the Shetopia ad. This was pretty radical for a brand to do that. Some people were like, “Won’t you get backlash from men?” And I’m like, “Who cares?” I like pushing the boundaries a little bit.
But ultimately, I take brand stewardship very seriously because the brand has to transcend the people who are working on it, and I want it to continue to thrive. To
me, as long as it’s still being used to inspire the brand, that’s what’s important to me.
Saybrook: In addition to shaping the brand, did the discovery of Sally have an internal effect on your team?
Lowenstein: Yes. One reason I think the story worked is the brand is multigenerational. When you do research on makeup, the first category that mothers typically allow their daughters to use is nail polish. And because Sally Hansen is so widely distributed and trusted, that’s what they use. That’s also why I have the mother in the video applying it to her daughter before going into the boardroom.
When I told the story and showed the footage of Sally to people on my team, they were crying because there is an emotional component—their mothers introduced them to the brand. And to see it come full circle from this woman in the 1960s who started it and was really self-made, all the way to where it is today, is really meaningful.
Saybrook: How did this experience shape the way you think about using a brand’s history and heritage? Has it affected how you approach your post-Sally Hansen roles?
Lowenstein: I think there’s a lot of power in founders’ stories or brand founding stories. No matter what brand you work on, there’s a reason the brand exists. When a brand lasts, that means it speaks to something that is eternal and universal. You just have to continue to adapt it.
I think there’s sometimes this negative stigma in the industry of legacy brands. People think “legacy” means old. No. “Legacy” means they stood the test of time. Those brands take longer to change, but that’s because they have such widespread awareness that you need to be careful how you change them. I’ve watched other brands try to contemporize that did not do as well because they strayed so far away from their ethos that it felt like a disconnect.
To me, my purpose is to make sure a brand always harkens back to its ethos. It doesn’t have to be overt, but there have to be underlying, enduring themes of why you’re doing what you’re doing. I still believe that’s important, and that belief has shaped the work that I do everywhere else I’ve been.
Saybrook: People sometimes think that using your history and heritage positions you as traditional or conservative. What you did with Sally Hansen was the opposite of that.
Lowenstein: It’s all about how you do it, what message you’re trying to convey. What kind of response are you hoping for? Are you trying to break through the clutter? Are you trying to capitalize on cultural moments? There are ways to do it. You just have to put some thought into it.